The 25th anniversary edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ran from September 7-16, 2000. It screened over 320 films, which together comprised an eclectic menu that included big-ticket Hollywood product, well-recognized international cinema, small and innovative films from lands far and near, documentaries, and special themes and programs (this year: Samuel Beckett; Stephen Frears; and the year 1976, the first year of TIFF).
What I admire most about this Festival is its customizability. Since I make my home in the US, I steered clear of most English-language fare, trusting that most of it will eventually make it to these shores. My approach was to concentrate on international cinema, with a strong emphasis on two countries whose cinemas interest me enormously: France and Iran. I am delighted to report that the majority of films I saw were accompanied, post-screening, by their directors who participated in sparkling Q&A’s adding immeasurably to the experience. What follows are ‘diaristic’ impressions of 22 films that were the most interesting among those I encountered at the festival.
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Thomas In Love (Pierre-Paul Renders, Belgium/France, 2000)
In this futuristic small gem, Thomas is an agoraphobe who hasn’t left his apartment in eight years. His only contact with the outside world is through his computer-video-phone. The entire film is comprised of the screen through which he interacts with the world, and we never actually see Thomas. If this seems like an impossibly limiting proposition over the course of 100 minutes, think again. Beginning as a frothy sci-fi cybersex comedy, the film by its conclusion has transported the audience to a terrain of surprising depth and feeling. The bright digital color palette of the first half of the film gives way to a visual texture that is somber and pallid in the closing half. The reason? Thomas has fallen in love, and the comfortable distance/anonymity of cybersex has been supplanted by.a real heartache. The shy and modest Renders remarked during the Q&A that his previous film was a short which told the story of a man who lived underwater and whose face was concealed behind his scuba-diving mask at all times. When he then fell in love (with a mermaid, of course) he was confronted with the psychological dilemma of removing his mask for their first kiss. When Renders read Philippe Blasband’s original script for Thomas In Love, it felt like a completely logical extension and elaboration of the director’s own short film!
The Circle (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000)
A chain of vignettes, each involving one or more women, during the course of a single day. Each vignette introduces us to a new character, and the film accompanies her for a while until she meets up with someone else, the camera then leaving with the new person, etc. (This idea was used as the structural basis for Slacker [Richard Linklater, 1991]). What the women have in common is that until very recently, they have all been in prison though we never find out why. Using the elements and resources that have been refined and mastered by Iranian filmmakers in recent years, Panahi turns this into a wrenching document on the state of women in Iran. The structure of the film is intricate and carefully conceived, matching the mastery applied to the presentation of its content. When he gently consummates the metaphor of the title by closing his “circle” at film’s end, he simply leaves the audience devastated. The screening I attended was the film’s premiere screening in Toronto, and was held only a couple of days after Panahi won the Golden Lion and five other prizes at Venice. Most of my fellow audience-members seemed to be Iranian, and as Panahi rose for the Q&A, the air in the room turned electric. A middle-aged woman screamed from the back in Farsi, “You’ve made a shameful film!”, and a contingent of men and women in the front rows leaped to his defense, also in Farsi. The questions posed to him were emotion-choked and quaveringly half-formed, and he answered them briefly but graciously. When told that he had made a great film “about the condition of women”, he hastily deflected the compliment, saying that he did “not think the film is about women, but about humanity”. In all, a profoundly moving experience.
Une Vraie Jeune Fille (Catherine Breillat, France, 2000)
Breillat’s first film, made in 1975, but deemed too strong and controversial for release back then. Upon its first screening 25 years later, the film provoked strong reactions at home in France, continuing the controversy spurred by her last film, Romance. Breillat says in her notes that accompany the screening: “We must change the aesthetic codes. We can render excretions and ooze lovable and beautiful..It is necessary to confront the fact that the organic frightens us. The vulva is like the black hole of the universe.”
In the film, a young girl comes home from boarding school to spend the summer with her parents in rural France. She is obsessed by the growing awareness of her sexuality, becoming fascinated by the juices, fluids and excretions of her own body as well as those of the natural world around her. Overlaid upon these ripe concerns are her raging fantasies which weave in and out of the sultry reality of her summer days and nights. Breillat daringly clicks back and forth from reality to fantasy (even within the same sequence) without any delineation. The film prompted more walk-outs than any other I have seen at the Festival, and drew loud and incredulous gasps from seasoned movie-goers. On the one hand, I am troubled by its unbending will to shock the audience, and yet its outrageous poetry and quietly ghoulish humor are impossible to deny or resist. There was an insightful Q&A with Breillat after the screening during which she was soft-spoken, patient, unruffled, and lucid. She explained in passing that the title of the film translates as “a very young girl”, actually an archaic French euphemism for “virgin”.
Aïe (Sophie Fillières, France, 2000)
A most eccentric and kooky May-December romantic comedy starring André Dussolier, actor extraordinaire in Alain Resnais’ marvelous films of the ’80s (La Vie Est Un Roman, L’Amour À Mort, Mélo) and ’90s (On Connaît La Chanson), and the director’s sister Helene Fillières. What appears at the outset to be far-out whimsy slowly reveals itself to be a kind meditation on love and romance. The film also skillfully plays with our sense of what is reality and what is fantasy without providing any convenient explanations. In the end what really anchors the film in the mind are the superb performances. The title refers to the exclamation “ouch” in French, and is the nickname of the young woman in the film (don’t ask, unless you’re prepared for an answer that involves interplanetary travel).
Krapp’s Last Tape (Atom Egoyan, Ireland, 2000)
John Hurt’s terrific performance stands at the center of Egoyan’s intelligent and deceptively simple adaptation of the Beckett play of the same name. In this hour-long film, the action takes place in one room, mostly at a desk with a tape recorder. Krapp listens to a tape of himself made in his youth when he was 39, and then proceeds to record a few fragments in the present. The director’s feat in this film is to gently explore the mediating influence of technology on memory. After the film, Egoyan spoke articulately about the play being a formative influence on him when he was a 15-year-old adolescent growing up in Victoria, British Columbia. He said that his first short film Howard In Particular consisted of an old man in a room listening to a tape recorder. (The circumstances in the short are fiendishly absurdist as well: the firm that is firing Howard has decided that it can’t afford to throw him a farewell party, and instead puts him in a room and plays him an audiotape of a farewell party!). Egoyan noted that since he himself was 39 when making the film, the project had an unusual personal resonance for him.
To Die (Or Not) (Ventura Pons, Spain, 2000)
How’s this for structural inventiveness? The first half of the film, shot in black-and-white, comprises seven vignettes, each chronicling the moments leading up to a death; the second half, in color, repeats the seven vignettes in reverse order, only with minor changes in choice that result in averting all seven deaths. The stories are interconnected, their points of intersection revealing themselves gradually over time. Granted, it sounds like a schematic conceit, but you’d be surprised how well it plays. Pons uses a blisteringly confident momentum, stirring musical accompaniment, an agile camera and black humor to pull off this balancing act of a film. It is true that in sketching his characters he employs more deft than depth, but Pons is a fascinating example of storyteller as conjurer. After a long-sustained breathless rush, the ending of the film is calm and uplifting, and it’s only when you emerge into the sunlight that you realize Pons has been playing you like a piano for 90 minutes. Renews one’s faith in the miracle of pure storytelling.
Merci Pour Le Chocolat (Claude Chabrol, France, 2000)
This French New Wave pioneer has had his share of critical indifference, even hostility, and he is partly to blame for it. His output can be notoriously uneven, but when he is on top of his game (which is not infrequently), his films are delectable.
They often combine juicy crime stories with a critical dissection of bourgeois mores, and do so with far more sympathy than he is given credit for. In his new film (his 52nd), a young aspiring woman pianist may or may not be the switched-at-birth daughter of a celebrated maestro, who is in turn married to the CEO of a chocolate empire (played by the impeccable Isabelle Huppert) who may or may not be a murderer. This plot, of course, is merely a pretext for Chabrol to gain access to an upper-middle-class household where he can examine familial interaction under a microscope. (He shows us plenty of scenes of people eating together, as he is wont to). There are overt homages to Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir (along with Hitchcock, his favorite directors), and the cast is marvelous, but overall the film feels a bit flat and uncooked. Still, it looks pretty delicious, and a ride with Chabrol is never a waste of time.
The Wrestlers (Buddhadeb Dasgupta, India, 2000)
Two friends who man a rural railway station spend their leisure time wrestling each other. One of them gets married, and the presence of his wife disrupts their friendship. In addition, the calmness of the village is destroyed by the arrival of thugs with ties to Hindu fundamentalists. This is an immaculately framed film in which the visual design speaks more than pages of dialogue ever could. Filmed on location in the Purulia district of West Bengal, Dasgupta has captured an idyllic, timeless pastoralism in which the realities of present-day India are dangerously close at hand. Summoning the resonances of mythology and folk music traditions, this is a beautiful and tragic cinematic poem. A personal perk: having spent my formative years in Calcutta, it was bliss to hear the mellifluous sound of Bengali in a film, and to be waived from reading subtitles for a change. Dasgupta, also a renowned poet and author, was present for an interesting post-screening Q&A two days after having won the director’s prize for the film at Venice over the weekend.
Samia (Philippe Faucon, France, 2000)
This film tells the story of the Algerian immigrant experience in Marseilles, focusing on the coming-of-age of a young girl (Samia) and her sisters in a conservative Algerian family run by her ironfisted brother. This is a powerful, authentically rendered work that feels to me (also an immigrant) to be supremely real and true. There are no easy judgments or solutions in the film, and it is both generous and unflinching in its depictions.
Samia lives in two worlds: the indoors which stifle and suffocate her (the repressive household with her ever-vigilant brother, or the school which she feels increasingly disconnected from), and the outdoors which unburden and liberate her (a music concert, a lakeside, roller skating). This duality is matched by the co-existence of French and Algerian cultures within and outside her home, making for a matrix of decisions and consequences. Faucon handles all this without grand dramatic gestures, without solemn closures or resolutions, enhancing the power of this small but wonderful film.
Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2000)
The 22-year-old director co-wrote this film with her father, the renowned director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who also edited it. Two teachers, blackboards on their backs, try to find someone/anyone who wants to learn how to read and write. One of them attaches himself to a group of young boys hired to smuggle contraband across the Iran-Iraq border, while the other joins a group of Kurdish refugees trying to get back to their homeland across the border. Set exclusively in rocky and unfriendly mountainous terrain and shot on location with a large cast of mostly nonprofessional actors, this is a powerful film, rich in allegory, simultaneously urgent and reflective. A blackboard is used for a host of purposes in the film, rarely for teaching. The representation of an entire universe filled with rich detail is contained in this ambitious film, which never feels sententious or heavy-handed.
Smell Of Camphor, Fragrance Of Jasmine (Bahman Farmanara, Iran, 2000)
Those marvelous Iranian films, they just keep coming! This one is probably the most strongly autobiographical work of cinema I have seen in a while. The director of the film plays a film director who hasn’t made a film in over 20 years (true to life). He undertakes a documentary on Iranian funeral rituals for Japanese television, simultaneously experiencing premonitions of his own death. This seemingly artless and deeply funny film is strongly narrative-driven, and turns on the performance of the director, who is not a professional actor. Ominous events and strange occurrences are present, but only at the fringes of the story, thus strengthening the foreboding and uneasiness the audience feels. Post-screening, Farmanara said that his first choice was to cast a professional actor in the lead role. When that didn’t seem to be working well, his friend Kiarostami felt strongly that Farmanara (who had no acting experience) simply had to play the role himself. An inspired idea, since the director plays the part with great understatement and restraint, and is in practically every single frame of this film. Farmanara told an anecdote about his scripts being repeatedly rejected by the Iranian authorities for years, until this one, which was accepted in just a week. He suspected it was because of the subject matter (i.e., his own death!).
Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, Japan, 2000)
A black-and-white road movie that runs almost four hours, and follows four characters, two of them mute? Going into the screening, it sounds like a risky venture but I quickly dispatched such skepticism when I realized that this film wastes no time or space in its unhurried yet fascinatingly eventful narrative. Employing long takes, significant stretches of silence, and carefully composed images to orchestrate a journey, it builds to a revelatory climax that is as much release as renewal. Masterful filmmaking, now let’s hope it finds a distributor.
Sous Le Sable (Under The Sand, François Ozon, France, 2000)
A married couple (he somewhat older than she) arrive at the seaside on a vacation. He goes for a swim, never to return. We pick up again, a few months later, as his wife (played with precision and grace by Charlotte Rampling) comes to terms with his absence. Coming from the prolific Ozon in the wake of Sitcom, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops On Burning Rocks (films that employ one or more of shock, gore, rats and sexual obsession), this gentle and bittersweet work feels like a salt-saturated sea breeze. Rampling was at the Festival with three films (including the much-acclaimed Signs And Wonders by Jonathan Nossiter, and Aberdeen). Speaking after the screening, she said that Ozon wrote and shot the first part of the film (until the husband’s disappearance) in the summer without knowing what would occur in the plot later, retreating to conceive, write and shoot the remaining majority of the film in the winter.
Djomeh (Hassan Yektapanah, Iran, 2000)
The director worked as an assistant to Kiarostami, and his influence is easy to discern. In a northern Iranian mountain village, an Afghan youth works in a dairy farm, and attempts to court an Iranian girl. The film incarnates many of the elements we have come to recognize as hallmarks of Iranian cinema: unsentimental humanism, documentary authenticity, ennobling care devoted to recording quotidian detail, use of nonprofessional actors, and a lack of large dramatic flourishes.
While ostensibly about lovesickness, the film’s real subject is the clash of cultures, in this case between Iranians and Afghan immigrants, many of whom fled their battle-torn homeland for modest economic opportunity in Iran. Much of the filming is done from a certain respectful distance which has a de-dramatizing effect and further enhances its unadulterated realness. The director remarked after the screening that no improvisation was used and that the actors frequently performed over 50 takes per sequence, a fact that is miraculously belied by the restrained low-key naturalism of this film. A film that is so quiet and self-effacing that it runs the risk of being immediately forgotten, which would be a real crime.
In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 2000)
In the ’60s, two neighbors (played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) realize that their spouses are having an affair. This discovery draws them closer together. Wong imbues his film with a deep romantic hue, and his graceful ellipticism turns it into an impressionistic, bittersweet dream. He recreates the period with spare exactness, and the costumes (like Tony Leung’s suits or Maggie Cheung’s assortment of high-collared dresses) reinforce the impression of the story being filtered through the mists of memory. And then there’s the music. Nat “King” Cole has scarcely been used in film to such poignant effect as in these renditions of three Spanish-language (!) songs that he recorded in the thick of the Latin-pop crossover of the ’60s. At Festival-end, this is the film for which I felt the deepest affection.
The Day I Became A Woman (Merziyeh Meshkini, Iran, 2000)
Like Blackboards, this film is also written and produced by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The director (who is married to Makhmalbaf) is also his former assistant director. This is an ingeniously designed triptych of stories about three female characters: in the first, a young girl turns nine (becomes a woman.) and is immediately subject to an entirely new and different set of codes and rules in her home; in the second, a woman decides to leave her husband (I don’t wish to reveal the breathtaking narrative context of this segment, except that it exclusively employs moving camera); and in the final segment, an old woman goes on a belated expedition as a consumer. All the action takes place with the backdrop of the sea, which unites and embraces all these stories. This remarkable film blends the tones of documentary realism and surreal absurdism with effortlessness, and one strongly senses Makhmalbaf’s imprint on it.
Séance (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2000)
In 1999, TIFF featured Kurosawa as its spotlight director, and showed seven of his films. I saw, and tremendously enjoyed, all of them. They were marked by: a genuine love of genre elements, which he then recombined and extended into narratives new and fresh; a droll and elliptical editing style; a meditative pacing; and quicksilver deadpan humor. His introductions and post-film Q&A’s were just wonderful, full of humility but shot through with a prodigious sense of humor and a gift for charming ruminations. This year, Kurosawa returned to TIFF with a ghost story, loosely based on Bryan Forbes’ Séance On A Wet Afternoon. The story examines the life of a married couple: she is a clairvoyant and waitress, and he is a movie sound-effects man (shades of Blow-Out). Add to the mix: dead bodies in trunks, doppelgänger figures, faceless spectres and child-kidnapping, and we are in familiar Kurosawa territory. Introducing the film, the director said that while he himself does not believe in ghosts, he was inspired to make the film by a clairvoyant friend, whose advice to those who see ghosts is to shut their eyes tightly for a few minutes and open them up again. (The ghost usually disappears). This is a story about people, he said wryly, for whom that technique failed to work. In the end, this film doesn’t quite cohere as well as some of his others (the best of them is probably 1999’s License To Live), but the journey has been quite delightful.
With Closed Eyes (Mansur Madavi, Austria, 1999)
The director was born and raised in Azerbaijan but now lives and works in Austria. The film is set in a Chilean desert village, and comprises vignettes in the life of a young boy. One detects the casual presence of violence in man and nature through the course of this film. Beyond this, the film’s narrative is impossible to describe meaningfully since the structure of the film is fragile in its impressionism, ephemeral in its gentle fragmentation. There are two things that struck me about this difficult but haunting film: the camera is a distant observer making faithful documentary-like recordings; but also, the hand of the filmmaker guides these recordings and shapes them through the use of associative editing principles into a film composed of shards of resonant images, echoing and ricocheting off each other. In the end, what remains etched forever in the mind’s eye are these miraculous images, clear and sun-soaked, burnished by the rusty luminosity of the desert, and covered with an invisible film of red Andean dust. This is pure cinema, a place of priceless reward and silent epiphany.
Code Inconnu (Michael Haneke, France/Austria, 2000)
A title card reads: “Incomplete tales of several journeys”. In weaving together several loosely interconnected stories in Paris, rural France, Romania, and Mali, and using sequence shots almost exclusively, this is a film made with fearsome authority and assurance. Its obliqueness, and its refusal to deliver a clearly discernible “message” are formidable and strangely disquieting.
The film is concerned with: the glacialization of contemporary life; the sad distance between people of different races and ethnicities living in the same city; the hypocrisy and false moralism of the media, etc. But a mere statement of these themes feels pale and flat in the face of a film whose monstrously swirling and coolly cerebral narrative is mesmerizing, bracing, and unsettling. For those of us who were wondering where he would turn after the formal mastery and focused political purpose of Funny Games, Haneke has unfurled a complex surprise. For me, the most interesting film of the festival.
The Long Holiday (Johan van der Keuken, Netherlands, 2000)
One of the world’s leading documentary filmmakers, the Dutchman van der Keuken has made his home in Paris since the ’50s. Two years ago, he learned that he had prostate cancer and that his condition was steadily worsening. He and his wife decided to pick up their cameras and travel to Bhutan, Mali, Brazil, and the USA in search of healing (physical, psychic, spiritual). This stunning documentary film essay captures those journeys, punctuated by his returns home to his doctor. What emerges is a poignant ode to life and to the importance of images in our lives. Possessed of formidable intuition, van der Keuken seems to have had the camera running to capture the most miraculously serendipitous events and chance revelations that dot our daily lives. Here is a director who uses the raw material of documentary footage but creates a completely transcendent viewer experience by intuiting the power and possibility of each “found” image on its own, and through montage by its juxtaposition with others. He is also working with a combination of digital video and film for the first time here, and during his personal appearance he hoped that the film represents a fruitful dialogue between those two media. His wide-ranging essayistic methods can be illustrated by the sequence in which he goes unaccompanied by his wife to the San Francisco film festival to receive a special achievement award, and assembles for her when he is there, a filmed homage to Vertigo as a gift. The film ends with a lengthy sequence filmed in a harbor with ships languidly criss-crossing the screen, moving in and out of focus while we hear foghorns, birds and the passing ships on the soundtrack. As the lights came on for the Q&A, an impatient viewer asked him about that last scene :”What was that? A long meditation or something?” The director remarked that it was precisely that, a long meditation. Further expounding, he gently pointed out that one of the purposes of film is to allow viewers to “travel” either within the film or outside it, stirred and spurred by the act of experiencing images. Despite the casual offhandedness of that moment, it provides much wisdom about cinema.
The Gleaners And I (Agnès Varda, France, 2000)
Varda begins her documentary film essay with this humble seed of an idea: seeking out the practitioners of the lost art of gleaning in fields after the harvest. She hunts out modern-day gleaners, who often live on the fringes of society, and captures their faces, their homes, and their words. She slowly opens the film up into an exploration of gleaning in other forms, literal and metaphorical. From the initial definition of gleaning (through a dictionary close-up, in classical style) and Millet’s painting of the same title at the Musée d’Orsay, the film by its conclusion has traveled through an entire world of those who collect, reuse, preserve and thrive on the casually-discarded detritus of our consumerist lives. As Varda travels all over France looking for gleaners of every kind, she employs both digital video and film. Woven into the film is also the highly personal presence of Varda herself. (In fact, the French title of the film is more precise than its English counterpart: Les Glaneurs Et La Glaneuse, with the director as glaneuse). She records close-ups of her lightly mottled hands on digital video, which eerily recalls the similar shots she made of her husband Jacques Demy’s hands in Jacquot De Nantes just before his death in 1990. Varda appeared for an electrifying Q&A that lasted over an hour, and she reluctantly concluded at well past midnight. She spoke of the people she met and filmed during the course of making this documentary as being her biggest reward from this project. She spent much time recounting their stories and lives in greater detail than the film alludes to, and it was fascinating. In the midst of discussing these ordinary yet extraordinary “gleaners”, a 20-year-old (film student?) asked a jarring question about technique, which she dismissed brusquely (“technique isn’t important. Films are about people; technique is just a means to an end. Don’t take it too seriously.I don’t feel like talking about technique right now, maybe later.”). Wise words indeed. Her musings on her own mortality during the course of the film (she is 72) intimated to us that one of the world’s leading filmmakers needs to be cherished all the more preciously today.
La Captive (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium, 2000)
A conflation of Proust’s “La Prisonnière” and Vertigo, in which a rich young man attempts to control every waking and sleeping moment of the life of his live-in girlfriend, who is his willing captive. The film has a timeless quality, and a cleansing asceticism. Bresson’s spirit shines through it in a sweet redolence of Une Femme Douce. Akerman captures a dark anti-naturalist tone, and the film strikes me as a perversely tragic-romantic male fantasy. For me, this sublime film was the summit of the Festival.
Akerman appeared for a long and fascinating Q&A, speaking in her poetically precise English. She commented on the film as being paradoxically faithful to Proust: changing the names of the characters liberated her to let the film take flight on its own while retaining its Proustian essence. Her gracious humanism and her casual but scintillating musings on art during the Q&A provided for me the most deeply satisfying moments of the Festival.
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There were several films that I saw at TIFF 2000 that I chose not to write about, either because of my own inadequacies in discussing them or because I had some reservations about them. Among them were: Thierry Knauff’s formidable Wild Blue; Paul Cox’s Innocence (it was a true pleasure to see Cox in person again – he seems to be in his expansive humanism and indefatigable belief in art, an incarnation of the spirit of Renoir); Benoît Jacquot’s Sade; Béla Tarr’s haunting Werckmeister Harmonies; and Roy Andersson’s Songs From The Second Floor. Finally, the very best films I saw here (Akerman, The Circle, Varda, With Closed Eyes, The Wrestlers, Wong Kar-Wai, Haneke, van der Keuken) will make for deep memories.
Regrets? Of course, there are always some. Scheduling conflicts forced me to pass up: Chris Marker’s Tarkovsky documentary; Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s dance documentary Kalamandalam Gopi; Raul Ruiz’s Comedy Of Innocence; The Isle, The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, and Chunhyang, all from Korea; Amos Kollek’s Fast Food, Fast Women; Clouds Of May, from Turkey; Girls Can’t Swim, from France..the list never ends. But one thing is clear: TIFF just gets stronger each year.